Work is often sporadic, and many interpreters and translators work part
Although training requirements can vary, most interpreters and translators
have a bachelors degree.
Job outlook varies by specialty and language combination.
Nature of the Work
Interpreters and translators enable the cross-cultural communication
necessary in today's society by converting one language into another. However,
these language specialists do more than simply translate words they relay
concepts and ideas between languages. They must thoroughly understand the
subject matter in which they work so that they are able to convert information
from one language, known as the source language, into another, the target
language. In addition, they must remain sensitive to the cultures associated
with their languages of expertise.
Interpreters and translators are often discussed together because they share
some common traits. For example, both need a special ability, known as language
combination. This enables them to be fluent in at least two languages a native,
or active, language and a secondary, or passive, language; a small number of
interpreters and translators are fluent in two or more passive languages. Their
active language is the one that they know best and into which they interpret or
translate, and their passive language is one of which they have nearly perfect
Although some people do both, interpretation and translation are different
professions. Each requires a distinct set of skills and aptitudes, and most
people are better suited for one or the other. While interpreters often work
into and from both languages, translators generally work only into their active
Interpreters convert one spoken language into another or, in the case
of sign-language interpreters, between spoken communication and sign language.
This requires interpreters to pay attention carefully, understand what is
communicated in both languages, and express thoughts and ideas clearly. Strong
research and analytical skills, mental dexterity, and an exceptional memory also
The first part of an interpreters work begins before arriving at the
jobsite. The interpreter must become familiar with the subject matter that the
speakers will discuss, a task that may involve research to create a list of
common words and phrases associated with the topic. Next, the interpreter
usually travels to the location where his or her services are needed. Physical
presence may not be required for some work, such as telephone interpretation.
But it is usually important that the interpreter see the communicators in order
to hear and observe the person speaking and to relay the message to the other
There are two types of interpretation: simultaneous and consecutive.
Simultaneous interpretation requires interpreters to listen and speak (or sign)
at the same time. In simultaneous interpretation, the interpreter begins to
convey a sentence being spoken while the speaker is still talking. Ideally,
simultaneous interpreters should be so familiar with a subject that they are
able to anticipate the end of the speakers sentence. Because they need a high
degree of concentration, simultaneous interpreters work in pairs, with each
interpreting for 20- to 30-minute segments. This type of interpretation is
required at international conferences and is sometimes used in the courts.
In contrast to simultaneous interpretations immediacy, consecutive
interpretation begins only after the speaker has verbalized a group of words or
sentences. Consecutive interpreters often take notes while listening to the
speakers, so they must develop some type of note-taking or shorthand system.
This form of interpretation is used most often for person-to-person
communication, during which the interpreter sits near both parties.
Translators convert written materials from one language into another.
They must have excellent writing and analytical ability. And because the
documents that they translate must be as flawless as possible, they also need
good editing skills.
Translators assignments may vary in length, writing style, and subject
matter. When they first receive text to convert into another language,
translators usually read it in its entirety to get an idea of the subject. Next,
they identify and look up any unfamiliar words. Multiple additional readings are
usually needed before translators begin to actually write and finalize the
translation. Translators also might do additional research on the subject matter
if they are unclear about anything in the text. They consult with the texts
originator or issuing agency to clarify unclear or unfamiliar ideas, words, or
Translating involves more than replacing a word with its equivalent in
another language; sentences and ideas must be manipulated to flow with the same
coherence as those in the source document so that the translation reads as
though it originated in the target language. Translators also must bear in mind
any cultural references that may need to be explained to the intended audience,
such as colloquialisms, slang, and other expressions that do not translate
literally. Some subjects may be more difficult than others to translate because
words or passages may have multiple meanings that make several translations
possible. Not surprisingly, translated work often goes through multiple
revisions before final text is submitted.
The way in which translators do their jobs has changed with advancements in
technology. Today, nearly all translation work is done on a computer, and most
assignments are received and submitted electronically. This enables translators
to work from almost anywhere, and a large percentage of them work from home. The
Internet provides advanced research capabilities and valuable language
resources, such as specialized dictionaries and glossaries. In some cases, use
of machine-assisted translation including memory tools that provide comparisons
of previous translations with current work helps save time and reduce
The services of interpreters and translators are needed in a number of
subject areas. While these workers may not completely specialize in a particular
field or industry, many do focus on one area of expertise. Some of the most
common areas are described below; however, interpreters and translators also may
work in a variety of other areas, including business, social services, or
Conference interpreters work at conferences that involve
non-English-speaking attendees. This work includes international business and
diplomacy, although conference interpreters also may interpret for any
organization that works with foreign language speakers. Employers prefer
high-level interpreters who have the ability to translate from at least two
passive languages into one active (native) language for example, the ability to
interpret from Spanish and French into English. For some positions, such as
those with the United Nations, this qualification is mandatory.
Much of the interpreting performed at conferences is simultaneous; however,
at some meetings with a small number of attendees, consecutive interpreting also
may be used. Usually, interpreters sit in soundproof booths, listening to the
speakers through headphones and interpreting into a microphone what is said. The
interpreted speech is then relayed to the listener through headsets. When
interpreting is needed for only one or two people, the interpreter generally
sits behind or next to the attendee and whispers a translation of the
Guide or escort interpreters accompany either U.S. visitors abroad or
foreign visitors in the United States to ensure that they are able to
communicate during their stay. These specialists interpret on a variety of
subjects, both on an informal basis and on a professional level. Most of their
interpretation is consecutive, and work is generally shared by two interpreters
when the assignment requires more than an 8-hour day. Frequent travel, often for
days or weeks at a time, is common, an aspect of the job that some find
Judiciary interpreters and translatorshelp people appearing in
court who are unable or unwilling to communicate in English. These workers must
remain detached from the content of their work and not alter or modify the
meaning or tone of what is said. Legal translators must be thoroughly familiar
with the language and functions of the U.S. judicial system, as well as other
countries legal systems. Court interpreters work in a variety of legal
settings, such as attorney-client meetings, preliminary hearings, depositions,
trials, and arraignments. Success as a court interpreter requires an
understanding of both legal terminology and colloquial language. In addition to
interpreting what is said, court interpreters also may be required to translate
written documents and read them aloud, also known as sight translation.
Literary translators adapt written literature from one language into
another. They may translate any number of documents, including journal articles,
books, poetry, and short stories. Literary translation is related to creative
writing; literary translators must create a new text in the target language that
reproduces the content and style of the original. Whenever possible, literary
translators work closely with authors in order to best capture their intended
meanings and literary characteristics.
This type of work often is done as a sideline by university professors;
however, opportunities exist for well-established literary translators. As is
the case with writers, finding a publisher and maintaining a network of contacts
in the publishing industry is a critical part of the job. Most aspiring literary
translators begin by submitting a short sample of their work, in the hope that
it will be printed and give them recognition. For example, after receiving
permission from the author, they might submit to a publishing house a previously
unpublished short work, such as a poem or essay.
Localizationtranslators constitute a relatively recent and
rapidly expanding specialty. Localization involves the complete adaptation of a
product for use in a different language and culture. At its earlier stages, this
work dealt primarily with software localization, but the specialty has expanded
to include the adaptation of Internet sites and products in manufacturing and
other business sectors.
Translators working in localization need a solid grasp of the languages to be
translated, a thorough understanding of technical concepts and vocabulary, and a
high degree of knowledge about the intended target audience or users of the
product. The goal of these specialists is for the product to appear as if it
were originally manufactured in the country where it will be sold and supported.
Because software often is involved, it is not uncommon for people who work in
this area of translation to have a strong background in computer science or
computer-related work experience.
Providing language services to health care patients with limited English
proficiency is the realm of medical interpreters and translators. Medical
interpreters help patients to communicate with doctors, nurses, and other
medical staff. Translators working in this specialty primarily convert patient
materials and informational brochures, issued by hospitals and medical
facilities, into the desired language. Medical interpreters need a strong grasp
of medical and colloquial terminology in both languages, along with cultural
sensitivity regarding how the patient receives the information. They must remain
detached but aware of the patients feelings and pain.
Sign language interpreters facilitate communication between people who
are deaf or hard of hearing and people who can hear. Sign language interpreters
must be fluent in English and in American Sign Language (ASL), which combines
signing, finger spelling, and specific body language. ASL has its own
grammatical rules, sentence structure, idioms, historical contexts, and cultural
nuances. Sign language interpreting, like foreign language interpreting,
involves more than simply replacing a word of spoken English with a sign
representing that word.
Most sign language interpreters either interpret, aiding communication
between English and ASL, or transliterate, facilitating communication between
English and contact signing a form of signing that uses a more English
language-based word order. Some interpreters specialize in oral interpreting for
deaf or hard of hearing persons who lip-read instead of sign. Other specialties
include tactile signing, which is interpreting for persons who are blind as well
as deaf by making manual signs into a persons hands; cued speech; and signing
Self-employed and freelance interpreters and translators need general
business skills to successfully manage their finances and careers. They must set
prices for their work, bill customers, keep financial records, and market their
services to attract new business and build their client base.
Working environments of interpreters and translators vary. Interpreters work
in a variety of settings, such as hospitals, courtrooms, and conference centers.
They are required to travel to the site whether it is in a neighboring town or
on the other side of the world where their services are needed. Interpreters who
work over the telephone generally work on call, often in call centers in urban
areas, and keep to a standard 5-day, 40-hour workweek. Interpreters for deaf
students in schools usually work in a school setting for 9 months out of the
year. Translators usually work alone, and they must frequently perform under
pressure of deadlines and tight schedules. Many translators choose to work at
home; however, technology allows translators to work from virtually anywhere.
Because many interpreters and translators freelance, their schedules are
often erratic, with extensive periods of no work interspersed with others
requiring long, irregular hours. For those who freelance, a significant amount
of time must be dedicated to looking for jobs. In addition, freelancers must
manage their own finances, and payment for their services may not always be
prompt. Freelancing, however, offers variety and flexibility, and allows many
workers to choose which jobs to accept or decline.
The number of work-related accidents in these occupations is relatively low.
The work can be stressful and exhausting, and translation can be lonesome or
dull. However, interpreters and translators may use their irregular schedules to
pursue other interests, such as traveling, dabbling in a hobby, or working a
second job. Many interpreters and translators enjoy what they do and value the
ability to control their schedules and workloads.
Qualifications, and Advancement
The educational backgrounds of interpreters and translators vary. Knowing a
language in addition to a native language is essential. Although it is not
necessary to have been raised bilingual to succeed, many interpreters and
translators grew up speaking two languages.
In high school, students can prepare for these careers by taking a broad
range of courses that include English writing and comprehension, foreign
languages, and basic computer proficiency. Other helpful pursuits include
spending time abroad, engaging in comparable forms of direct contact with
foreign cultures, and reading extensively on a variety of subjects in English
and at least one other language.
Beyond high school, there are many educational options. Although a bachelors
degree is often required, interpreters and translators note that it is
acceptable to major in something other than a language. However, specialized
training in how to do the work is generally required. A number of formal
programs in interpreting and translation are available at colleges nationwide
and through non university training programs, conferences, and courses. Many
people who work as conference interpreters or in more technical areas such as
localization, engineering, or finance have masters degrees, while those working
in the community as court or medical interpreters or translators are more likely
to complete job-specific training programs.
There is currently no universal form of certification required of all
interpreters and translators in the United States, but there are a variety of
different tests that workers can voluntarily take to demonstrate proficiency.
The American Translators Association provides accreditation in more than 24
language combinations for its members; other options include a certification
program offered by The Translators and Interpreters Guild. Many interpreters are
not certified. Federal courts have certification for Spanish, Navaho, and
Haitian Creole interpreters, and many State and municipal courts offer their own
forms of certification. The National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and
Translators also offers certification for court interpreting.
The U.S. Department of State has a three-test series for interpreters,
including simple consecutive interpreting (for escort work), simultaneous
interpreting (for court or seminar work), and conference-level interpreting (for
international conferences). These tests are not referred to directly as
certification, but successful completion often indicates that a person has an
adequate level of skill to work in the field.
The National Association of the Deaf and the Registry of Interpreters for the
Deaf (RID) jointly offer certification for general sign interpreters. In
addition, RID offers specialty tests in legal interpreting, speech reading, and
deaf-to-deaf interpreting which includes interpreting between deaf speakers with
different native languages and from ASL to tactile signing.
Experience is an essential part of a successful career in either interpreting
or translation. In fact, many agencies or companies use only the services of
people who have worked in the field for 3 to 5 years or who have a degree in
translation studies or both.
A good way for translators to learn firsthand about the profession is to
start out working in-house for a company; however, such jobs are not very
numerous. Persons seeking to enter interpreter or translator jobs should begin
by getting experience whatever way they can even if it means doing informal or
unpaid work. All translation can be used as examples for potential clients, even
translation done as practice. Mentoring relationships and internships are other
ways to build skills and confidence. Escort interpreting may offer an
opportunity for inexperienced candidates to work alongside a more seasoned
interpreter. Interpreters might also find it easier to break into areas with
particularly high demand for language services, such as court or medical
interpretation. Once interpreters and translators have gained sufficient
experience, they may then move up to more difficult or prestigious assignments,
may seek certification, may be given editorial responsibility, or may eventually
manage or start their own translation agency.
Interpreters and translators held about 31,000 jobs in 2004. However, the
actual number of interpreters and translators is probably significantly higher
because many work in the occupation only sporadically. Interpreters and
translators are employed in a variety of industries, reflecting the diversity of
employment options in the field. About 9,900 worked in public and private
educational institutions, such as schools, colleges, and universities. About
4,100 worked in health care, many of which worked for hospitals. Another 3,400
worked in other areas of government, such as Federal, State and local courts.
Other employers of interpreters and translators include publishing companies,
telephone companies, airlines, and interpreting and translating agencies.
About 4,600 interpreters and translators are self-employed. To find work,
these interpreters and translators may submit resumes to many different
employment agencies, and then wait to be contacted when an agency matches their
skills with a job. After establishing a few regular clients, interpreters and
translators may receive enough work from a few clients to stay busy, and they
often hear of subsequent jobs by word of mouth or through referrals from
existing clients. Many who freelance in the occupation work only part time,
relying on other sources of income to supplement earnings from interpreting or
Employment of interpreters and translators is projected to increase faster
than the average for all occupations over the 2004-14 period, reflecting strong
growth in the industries employing interpreters and translators. Higher demand
for interpreters and translators in recent years has resulted directly from the
broadening of international ties and the increase in the number of foreign
language speakers in the United States. Both of these trends are expected to
continue, contributing to relatively rapid growth in the number of jobs for
interpreters and translators. Demand will remain strong for translators of the
languages referred to as PFIGS Portuguese, French, Italian, German, and
Spanish (and the principal Asian languages Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. In
addition, current events and changing political environments, often difficult to
foresee, will increase the need for persons who can work with other languages.
For example, homeland security needs are expected to drive increasing demand for
interpreters and translators of Middle Eastern and North African languages,
primarily in Federal Government agencies.
Technology has made the work of interpreters and translators easier. However,
technology is not likely to have a negative impact on employment of interpreters
and translators because such innovations are incapable of producing work
comparable with work produced by these professionals.
Urban areas, especially those in California and New York, and Washington, DC,
provide the largest numbers of employment possibilities, especially for
interpreters; however, as the immigrant population spreads into more rural
areas, jobs in smaller communities will become more widely available.
Job prospects for interpreters and translators vary by specialty. In
particular, there should be strong demand for specialists in localization,
driven by imports and exports, the expansion of the Internet, and demand in
other technical areas, such as medicine or law. Rapid employment growth among
interpreters and translators in health services industries will be fueled by the
implementation of relatively recent guidelines regarding compliance with Title
VI of the Civil Rights Act, which require all health care providers receiving
Federal aid to provide language services to non-English speakers. Similarly, the
Americans with Disabilities Act and other laws, such as the Rehabilitation Act,
mandate that, in certain situations, an interpreter must be available for people
who are deaf or hard of hearing. Given the shortage of interpreters and
translators meeting the desired skill level of employers, interpreters for the
deaf will continue to have favorable employment prospects. On the other hand,
job growth is expected to be limited for both conference interpreters and
Salaried interpreters and translators had median hourly earnings of $16.28 in
May 2004. The middle 50 percent earned between $12.40 and $21.09. The lowest 10
percent earned less than $9.67, and the highest 10 percent earned more than
Earnings depend on language, subject matter, skill, experience, education,
certification, and type of employer, and salaries of interpreters and
translators can vary widely. Interpreters and translators with language skills
for which there is a greater demand, or for which there are relatively few
people with the skills, often have higher earnings. Interpreters and translators
with specialized expertise, such as those working in software localization, also
generally command higher rates. Individuals classified as language specialists
for the Federal Government earned an average of $71,625 annually in 2005.
Limited information suggests that some highly skilled interpreters and
translators for example, high-level conference interpreters working full time
can earn more than $100,000 annually.
For those who are not salaried, earnings may fluctuate, depending on the
availability of work. Furthermore, freelancers do not have any employer-paid
benefits. Freelance interpreters usually earn an hourly rate, whereas
translators who freelance typically earn a rate per word or per hour.
Interpreters and translators use their multilingual skills, as do teachers of
languages. These include teachers preschool, kindergarten, elementary, middle,
and secondary; teachers postsecondary; teachers special education;
teachers adult literacy and remedial education; and teachers self-enrichment
education. The work of interpreters, particularly guide or escort interpreters,
can be likened to that of tour and travel guides, in that they accompany
individuals or groups on tours or to places of interest.
The work of translators is similar to that of writers and editors, in that they
communicate information and ideas through the written word and prepare texts for
publication or dissemination. Furthermore, interpreters or translators working
in a legal or health care environment are required to have a knowledge of terms
and concepts that is similar to that of professionals working in these fields,
such as court reporters or medical transcriptionists.
Sources of Additional
Organizations dedicated to these professions
can provide valuable advice and guidance for people interested in learning more
about interpretation and translation. The language services division of local
hospitals or courthouses also may have information about available
For general career information, contact the organizations
American Translators Association, 225 Reinekers Ln., Suite 590,
Alexandria, VA 22314. Internet:
The Translators and Interpreters Guild, 962 Wayne Avenue, Suite 500,
Silver Spring, MD 20910. Internet:
U.S. Department of State, Office of Language Services, Suite 1400 SA-1,
Department of State, Washington, DC 20520.
For more detailed information by specialty, contact the association
affiliated with that subject area:
National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators, 603
Stewart St., Suite 610, Seattle, WA 98101. Internet:
American Literary Translators Association, The University of Texas at
Dallas, Box 830688 Mail Station JO51, Richardson, TX 75083-0688. Internet:
Localization Industry Standards Association, 7 Route du Monastère-CH-1173,
Féchy, Switzerland. Internet:
Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, 333 Commerce St., Alexandria, VA
Suggested citation: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S.
Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2006-07
Interpreters and Translators, on the
Internet at http://www.bls.gov/oco/ocos175.htm
(visited May 12, 2006).